EU trade chief Hogan quits controversy over ‘golf hole’ in Ireland COVID-19

DUBLIN / BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Phil Hogan stepped down as EU Trade Commissioner on Wednesday after days of pressure over allegations that he violated COVID-19 guidelines during a trip to his native Ireland, saying it had become clear that the controversy was a distraction from his work,

FILE PHOTO: European Trade Commissioner-designate Phil Hogan from Ireland follows his hearing at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium 30 September 2019. REUTERS / Yves Herman

The forced exit of a heavyweight from the director of the bloc will be less than a year a credibility for the team led by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The Commission will play a key role in driving a € 750 billion recreational fund for EU economies hampered by the coronavirus crisis, and Hogan himself had made progress in tough trade talks with the United States.

“It became increasingly clear that the controversy surrounding my recent visit to Ireland was a distraction from my work as EU Commissioner and would undermine my work in the key months ahead,” Hogan said in a statement.

“I deeply regret that my trip to Ireland – the country I was so proud to represent as an official for most of my adult life – caused concern, unrest and upheaval.”

Hogan attended a golf dinner last week that angered the Irish public and led to the dismissal of an Irish minister and the discipline of several lawmakers. He had claimed on Tuesday that he was abiding by all the rules during the trip.

Hogan’s political fortune quickly disappeared. Just weeks ago, he had considered a bid to become the next director general of the World Trade Organization. Hogan told RTE TV that “this could be the end of my political chapter.”

The commissioner, who oversees the trade policy for the world’s largest trading bloc, has apologized three times for attending the event with some 80 others. But he came under pressure when it became clear that he had not completed 14 days of self-isolation in accordance with the rules for incoming travelers to Ireland.

Hogan was asked by von der Leyen to provide a detailed account of his 20-day trip, which included three visits to Kildare County, two made, he said, to collect essential trade documents and his passport, although in a locally was lockdown.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin and his deputy Leo Varadkar, leader of the Fine Gael party for whom Hogan served as minister, said on Tuesday that there were clear breaches of COVID-19 guidelines for public health during Hogan’s trip.

Martin and Varadkar said they believed Hogan had taken the right course of action on Wednesday, given last week’s circumstances and that they would consider his replacement on time.

Hogan’s resignation, less than a year into his term in office and six years after he was appointed Commissioner for Agriculture, means Ireland has to nominate a new representative to the commission. It may not be able to retain the same letter if von der Leyen chooses to reshuffle her team.

Potential nominees include Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, Mairead McGuinness, a Vice-President of the European Parliament, and Richard Bruton, a talented former minister who missed a cabinet post in June, Irish newspapers reported.

All three are members of Hogan and Varadkar’s Fine Gael party.

Reported by Graham Fahy and Padraic Halpin in Dublin and by John Chalmers in Brussels; Edited by Angus MacSwan and Grant McCool

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